The rising popularity of distributed teams in project management has generated a need for technological advancement and led to creation of many devices, programs, and applications that allow people to work together regardless of their location. Current themes and issues in virtual teams’ scholarly research include the development of programs that maximize mutual understanding, help managers to communicate with team members and explain the shared vision of the company to them. Moreover, the need to minimize the possibility of conflict situations is also analyzed. The continuously spreading phenomenon of companies adapting distributed teams to work on their products allows one to distinguish some common suggestions for successful project management. The following paper analyzes current trends, including main themes, issues, and future considerations of research and technological developments such as applications, websites, and programs used for working with and in distributed project management teams.
The creation of the “virtual team” phenomenon interconnected the spheres of the Internet and project management by introducing teams that work together while being located in different parts of the world (Gilson, Maynard, Jones Young, Vartiainen, & Hakonen, 2015, p. 1313). Currently, the modernized term “distributed team” is used to describe people working on a project online (Steimle, 2015, para. 2). With the rising popularity of such teams, their members created a demand for new technology that could perform beyond the functionality of services intended for recreational use and adapt to the professional needs of managers and regular employees. One can find many suggestions on managing a distributed team online, and a wide variety of applications exists and continues to appear on the market and in open access.
For example, Steimle (2015) argued that a distributed team might be difficult to oversee because of disconnectedness. Therefore, it demands a more focused approach focused on results, a structured meeting system for regular check-ups and control, and the increased attention to team-building opportunities outside of work. Furthermore, the author mentions the importance of using the right tools, such as Basecamp or WorldTimeBuddy. The development of tools for conflict resolution and better communication is also analyzed by Windeler, Maruping, Robert, and Riemenschneider (2015). They argue that the right technology can impact the success of the final project. Thus, the trends in technology development and common practices used in distributed teams are vital to project management research. Following the introductions, some important research questions will be formulated to guide the analysis of distributed teams. Then, a discussion will address the main themes and issues connected to the research questions. Finally, a conclusion will be offered along with recommendations for possible areas of future research.
The following research questions guide this investigation:
- What common practices and approaches do project managers employ to achieve success while working with distributed teams? Why does communication matter in maintaining control?
- Why does a distributed working team need special technology to work online? Many applications with a broad range of features already exist on the market. How does professional software differ from regular programs?
- How can technology help distributed teams manage projects and eliminate such issues as misunderstanding, disconnectedness, lack of personal control, unclear goals, and low motivation?
- What can be done to improve the current level of effectiveness of distributed teams and increase the cohesiveness of the company and group members’ motivations? What opportunities does the research of distributed teams have regarding technology development, team efficiency, and teamwork?
The existing empirical data suggest that the major focus of scholars and practitioners is on the ways distributed teams can be managed and the role technology plays in the process. Researchers also explore the effectiveness of different types of software used to manage distributed team projects (Weimann, Pollock, Scott, & Brown, 2013). This discussion addresses such domains as the most effective project managers’ practices, professional software benefits as compared to online products, technological tools for distributed team management, and methods and tools used to foster distributed team motivation and cohesiveness.
Project Managers’ Practices
Distributed teams have become common in many industries. The management of these teams has certain similarities with managing conventional groups of workers. However, quite different practices and approaches are employed, and these strategies often depend on the peculiarities of the industry (Steimle, 2015). At the same time, Steimle (2015) identified several key tools used by successful leaders of distributed teams. The central practices include the focus on results, holding regular meetings (involving some individuals, groups, or entire teams), and using the most appropriate software. Weimann et al. (2013) also singled out the use of the right software as the key to the proper performance of distributed teams. The researchers also argued that training appeared to be a highly valued practice that affected teams’ efficiency. Finally, Weimann et al. (2013) claimed that such technology-related issues as limited access to the Internet or the necessary resources have an adverse impact on the performance of the entire team. Gilson et al. (2015) claimed that various incentives aimed at addressing cultural peculiarities of team members exist and may facilitate collaboration and communication within teams.
Technology and Distributed Teams Management
As mentioned above, the use of the most appropriate software is regarded as the premise for the effective work of distributed teams. The discussion of this theme is associated with the focus on specific areas such as communication, project management, training, and supervision (Oliveira, Tereso, & Machado, 2014). One of the primary roles technology has played in the empowerment of distributed teams is the provision of a platform for knowledge sharing. Team members are often geographically distanced from each other, so sharing knowledge could be impossible without proper communication tools. Project management also depends on technology as it helps in making decisions, controlling processes, and sharing results.
It has been acknowledged that software positively affects communication in such teams (Weimann et al., 2013; Chen, Li, Clark, & Dietrich, 2013). Geographic locations and time differences are easily addressed with the help of email, video conferencing, social media, and other instruments. Weimann et al. (2013) provided a brief classification of communication facilitating software. Networked computers in offices, healthcare settings, or laboratories are helpful at the same time and same place tools. Phone and teleconferences, instant messengers, and phones are employed for the same time and different place interactions. Bulletin boards are utilized in the same place and at different times of communication. Email and texting are necessary for a different time and different place knowledge sharing. It is noteworthy that Gilson et al. (2015) found that the role of social media in the facilitation of distributed teams’ collaboration and communication was still under-researched.
As far as project management tools are concerned, Weimann et al. (2013) mentioned online sheet-management tools, document sharing software, online calendars, project planning support systems, task tracking instruments, and collaboration tools (such as wikis and forums). The members of such teams, as well as their leaders, receive notifications, reports concerning their progress and performance and are encouraged to share knowledge, which is one of the essential elements of collaboration. Chen et al. (2013) also noted that web-based systems and programs facilitate sharing behaviors within distributed teams. In addition to the functions mentioned above, such areas as planning, the evaluation of the available sources, reporting, scheduling, and setting hierarchical levels (Oliveira et al., 2014). The concept of time is rather relevant for collaboration systems. Oliveira et al. (2014) noted that collaborative tools imply the focus on two dimensions. The horizontal dimension is associated with the identification of the location of participants, while the vertical dimension is concerned with synchronous and asynchronous communication.
The use of technological advances for the effective functioning of distributed teams is also linked to such domains as supervision and training. Gilson et al. (2015) claimed that supervision could be regarded as one of the constituent parts of leadership. The researchers emphasize the need to develop strong leadership that has certain peculiarities when working with distributed teams (Colomo-Palacios, Casado-Lumbreras, Soto-Acosta, García-Peñalvo, & Tovar, 2013). Gilson et al. (2015) added that leadership styles and personality types of team members should be taken into account as supervision, independence, authority, encouragement, and mentoring should be balanced and used wisely in such teams. Training is also seen as an essential component of leadership (Rentsch, Delise, Mello, & Staniewicz, 2014). Team members should receive training and development in order to use the web-based instruments necessary for effective communication and collaboration (Krauss & Fussell, 2014). Team building efforts are also crucial for distributed teams functioning.
The focus on the content of web-based tools rather than their status (professional or mainstream and free tools) is apparent. Steimle (2015) stated that their team was using diverse instruments irrespective of their status as they could be instrumental in achieving particular goals. Their cost-effectiveness is also the factor making these systems and software attractive for many companies. At the same time, Weimann et al. (2013) identified several areas to concentrate on when evaluating tools. Such categories as accessibility, customization, and security are regarded as central to efficient web-based systems for distributed teams. The professional software can be adjusted to the peculiarities of the organization and particular projects. Security is often significantly higher as compared to free systems, which is pivotal for many businesses. Therefore, many companies tend to choose professional tools when managing distributed teams.
Distributed Teams’ Motivation and Cohesiveness
Finally, motivation and cohesiveness have received sufficient attention, and researchers have tried to analyze various issues related to these aspects of distributed teams. Gilson et al. (2015) argued that these two concepts are often interrelated when applied to distributed teams. It is stressed that cohesion can be achieved through the use of effective communication and collaboration systems, which facilitate team members’ motivation. Windeler et al. (2015) identified one of the ways to improve teams’ cohesiveness. The researchers found that the use of e-profiles positively correlated with the cohesiveness of distributed teams, which, in its turn, had a favorable influence on motivation (Windeler et al., 2015). It is apparent that team members need sufficient information about their peers to develop proper communication and collaborative behaviors. Various systems ensure team members’ access to such data as well as effective sharing of different types of information.
Conclusion and Recommendations for Future Research
In conclusion, the current research on distributed teams is characterized by the focus on such concepts as communication, collaboration, leadership, and technology. Numerous systems and web-based instruments enable distributed teams to operate effectively irrespective of geographic locations and time differences. It is also acknowledged that professional software can ensure the more stable functioning of teams, a high level of data security, and accessibility. Researchers argue that strong leadership is essential, but it is quite specific due to the peculiarities of distributed teams.
Based on this discussion, it is possible to come up with a number of recommendations for future research. First, it is pivotal to continue identifying and addressing the ways in which team members’ cultural peculiarities affect their performance in such teams. Although some efforts to evaluate different systems have been made, it is necessary to ensure the development of effective patterns to assess the applicability of the existing tools in specific industries and business environments. Motivation is another area to pay attention to since the existing models remain cost-ineffective or partially successful.
It is also clear that training is still associated with numerous gaps. One of the major aspects to consider is the way team members can be trained. Time differences and geographic constraints may be serious barriers to the effective acquisition of knowledge and skills. The gaps are specifically apparent in leadership training as leaders have to learn how to manage new types of teams. Finally, there is a certain lack of empirical data related to the areas mentioned above. It is critical to analyze the effectiveness of particular patterns, software, systems, and strategies in different settings. This will enable practitioners to choose the most relevant methods and resources that will improve their distributed teams’ performance.
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